The Impact of Human Resource Practices on Low-Income Workers in the Context of a Natural Disaster

By Lilly, Juliana; Kavanaugh, Joseph et al. | Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management, September 2008 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Human Resource Practices on Low-Income Workers in the Context of a Natural Disaster


Lilly, Juliana, Kavanaugh, Joseph, Zelbst, Pamela, Duffy, JoAnn, Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management


ABSTRACT

A team of four researchers interviewed fifty-two displaced employees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita about the human resource practices of their organizations before and after the hurricanes, attitudes toward their employers, as well as their perceptions of organizational justice, trust and commitment. Using traditional qualitative analytic methods, a team of four researchers found strong, consistent relationships between variables. Findings suggest that organizations may benefit from treating all employees, including low-income employees, as valuable human capital so that employees may feel more committed to helping the organization rebuild after a disaster.

Introduction

The hurricanes that ripped through the Gulf of Mexico in 2005 exposed a number of problems with the community's ability to cope with such disasters. One aspect of the disasters that has been discussed briefly in the practitioner literature, but not yet in the academic literature, is the ability or willingness of business organizations to assist employees in coping with the hurricane. The hurricanes' devastation prevented many businesses from reopening and operating at all, and despite the severity of the damage, some business organizations still tried to help employees while other firms did nothing to help employees. What are the implications of helping or not helping for employee relations AND business recovery?

The purpose of this paper is to determine the impact of HR practices on employee perceptions of the organization after a natural disaster. A few authors have discussed this issue in previous studies (Harvey & Haines, 2005; Sanchez, Korbin & Viscarra, 1995), but not in the context of massive destruction and uncertainty such as that faced by business organizations in New Orleans after Katrina. Our paper specifically probes the links between HR practices, organizational justice, trust and commitment. Qualitative data consisting of interviews with victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita conducted at the FEMA Service Center in Houston, Texas, are used to explore this issue in depth.

A separate issue in this study involves the inclusion of low-income employees in HR research. Very few HR studies examine attitudes of low-income employees, perhaps because these employees are sometimes considered to be expendable. For instance, there seems to be a general attitude in business that low-wage employees are easily trained and replaced, as evidenced by the minimal training and effort put forth to retain employees in many lower paid jobs such as store clerk, restaurant employee and home health care worker. This attitude appears to be replicated in the academic research by the dearth of HR studies in industries with low- paying jobs such as retail, food service, and home health. Indeed, the few studies that exist on low-income workers are primarily geared toward economic issues rather than HR issues. For example, studies on lowwage employees have looked at the effect of the economy on low-wage jobs and innovative work practices (Handel & Gittleman, 2004), the effect of minimum wage on low-wage earners (Neumark, Schweitzer & Wascher, 2004), and how pensions may explain lower turnover rates in federal government jobs, even those that are lower paid jobs (Ippolito, 1987).

Although replacing lower level employees can be quite costly when considering interviews, employment tests, paperwork, and orientation, it appears that both business people and HR researchers believe concepts such as organizational justice or organizational commitment may not be as relevant to the low-income employee. Indeed, although Chelte and Tausky found in 1986 that antecedents and outcomes of organizational commitment varied depending upon employee rank in a university (manager, professional, and blue collar employee), a search of PsychInfo using the terms "low-income worker (employee)", "blue collar worker (employee)", and "low-level worker (employee)" turned up a total of only twenty citations. …

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